There are some aspects of policing which rarely enter public consciousness. Custody suites and what happens in them is surely one of these; yet last week they were twice in the news.
The first was impossible to miss – the truly shocking death of Matt Ratana, an experienced custody sergeant, who was shot and killed by a detainee at a Croydon Police Station.
The fact that the killing of a police officer on duty is rare in this country will be of little comfort to the sergeant’s family or the police service more widely. In many ways it makes it all the harder to bear and to deal with, because it seems so inexplicable. How are we to make sense of it?
At present, even the actual circumstances are hard to get our heads round: How could the suspect get into the custody suite with a gun secreted about his person? How was someone in handcuffs able to fire a gun at all? There are some difficult questions here that will have to be answered. We need the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) to investigate and report swiftly.
The grieving family are now the centre of media interest and that will be with them not just in these most difficult of immediate days, but for years to come. Images of their loved one appear on TV now and will suddenly appear in the future at moments they may not be expecting. This will make it hard to grieve. On the other hand, they will have the support of the police ‘family’ which, as we have seen in South Yorkshire, can make a huge difference at such a time.
The other story of police custody you may not have noticed.
It concerned a Liverpool woman, Cheryl Pile, who had been arrested for being drunk and disorderly and taken to the custody centre. She had consumed a great deal of alcohol and after flailing around passed out in a cell, covering herself in vomit. During the time of her unconsciousness, female officers, acknowledging the duty of care they have to all who are detained and not wanting her to marinade overnight in her own bodily fluids, cleaned her up and put her in fresh clothing.
Afterwards, she objected to this and took the police to court for ‘assault’. She lost her case the first time round but then appealed. Last week her appeal was also dismissed.
The whole saga has cost the tax payer a substantial amount of money as well as taking up a lot of court time and causing unnecessary stress to the officers concerned.
The incidents tell us two things about those who work in custody centres: first, they face risks as great as any other officers; but second, on a daily basis, they have to exercise that duty of care in some quite appalling and unpleasant situations and even when detainees are behaving outrageously towards them.
I have Independent Custody Visitors (ICVs) – volunteers – who go unannounced into the three custody suites in South Yorkshire – in Doncaster, Barnsley and Sheffield. They ensure that the custody officers treat detainees with proper dignity and respect. In turn, we must give those officers the support and resources they need. Their job is not without risk and is frequently unpleasant.
In what we once regarded as ‘normal times’, the chances of my getting a meeting with a minister were not impossible but often remote. Such meetings were also time consuming and expensive. ‘The Minister can see you at the Home Office for half an hour before 9 o’clock on Thursday morning’ or ‘The Secretary of State can give you forty minutes in the Commons at 7pm’. This would mean that the Chief Executive and I had to re-arrange our meetings, get a train to London and possibly stay in a hotel either the day before or the day after. This was costly in all sorts of ways, not least in time and energy.
But since the coronavirus we have all learnt to hold meetings by remote video conferencing. I have been able to question a Secretary of State and four ministers multiple times since the end of March.
This is one piece of remote that should remain should we ever return to the old normal.
Well, I never….
The judge who rejected the appeal of the drunken Liverpudlian woman who claimed she had been assaulted because officers had cleaned her up in the custody suite, began the summary of his judgement with words that were as unusual as they were arresting:
“Cheryl Pile brings this appeal to establish the liberty of inebriated English subjects to be allowed to lie undisturbed overnight in their vomit soaked clothing. Of course, such a right, although perhaps of dubious utility, will generally extend to all adults of sound mind who are intoxicated at home. Ms Pile, however, was not at home. She was at a police station in Liverpool having been arrested for the offence of being drunk and disorderly…”
There are times when you think the police simply cannot win.
I hope you are staying safe and well.